Warning: This blog contains spoilers and a discussion of emotionally abusive relationships.
Written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me (2019, First Second) is a young adult graphic novel that explores the mesmerizing, awkward, and sometimes unhealthy landscape of young love. Seventeen-year-old Freddy Riley is completely and totally in love with the magnetic Laura Dean, one of the most popular girls at school. The only catch: Laura Dean keeps breaking up with her. Caught in a cycle of heartbreak, Freddy can’t help but forgive Laura Dean time after time. Though, each time she does, Freddy becomes more distant from her friends, who are growing frustrated with Laura Dean’s manipulation and Freddy’s disappearing act. Trying to sort through her feelings, Freddy writes to an online advice columnist, Anna Vice, and visits a local mystic, Seek-Her, who tells Freddy exactly how to fix her problem: break up with Laura Dean herself. With her heart and her friendships on the line, Freddy must decide who deserves a place in her life.
It is easy to dismiss teenage romance as a more innocent version of love; one filled with awkward handholding and Saturday night movie dates. However, sixteen-year-olds can also find themselves in not-so-harmless relationships, experiencing several forms of abuse. In fact, Dosomething.org, the largest non-profit focusing exclusively on young people, reports that one in three adolescents in the U.S. is victim to physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal dating abuse. Therefore, Laura Dean addresses a rather widespread occurrence, thereby shedding light on a complex though largely undiscussed issue.
So, why doesn’t Freddy break up with Laura Dean, whom she finds sleeping with another student within the first few pages? Well, Laura Dean consistently gaslights her, acting as if Freddy reads too much into things or just needs to accept that ‘this’ is the nature of their relationship—and that’s okay, even if it repeatedly sends Freddy into a cycle of depression and heartbreak and then back to blissful, though ultimately temporary, love. Freddy knows that Laura Dean is lying about going to track practice just to hang out with someone else behind her back. She is also painfully aware that their relationship is tearing her away from her friends, because when Laura Dean calls, Freddy must answer. But none of that changes the fact that Freddy loves her. And why should she break up with someone she still has feelings for? The answer to this question was one of the most poignant passages of the novel, addressed when Anna Vice finally replies to Freddy’s tangent of complicated romantic questions:
“The truth is, breakups are usually messy, the way people are messy, the way life is often messy. It’s okay for a breakup to feel like a disaster. It doesn’t feel okay, but I assure you it is okay. It’s also true that you can break up with someone you still love. Because those two things are not distinct territories: love and not loving anymore.”
Eventually, Freddy does break up with Laura Dean, severing all ties with their toxic tango and finding her way back to her loving friends after apologizing for ghosting them. It is also important to note another aspect of Laura Dean: how the novel dissects a toxic relationship that just so happens to be between two young women. Molly Knox Ostertag, author of the middle-grade graphic novel, Witch Boy (2017, Scholastic), even blurbed about this part of Laura Dean, calling it “a breath of fresh air in the canon of young adult LGBTQ literature in that it doesn’t focus on homophobia, coming out, or repression, but instead follows a twisting and utterly relatable teen love story.” Not only does Tamaki somewhat normalize queerness in the world of Laura Dean, but her main narrative thread is that of emotional abuse, providing both queer teens in similar relationships and those who are not with a story that may reflect, or at least somewhat reflect, their experience.
Regardless of your sexuality, age, or relationship status, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me is at once a heartbreaking and heartwarming tale of what it means to be young and in love—no matter how complicated.
PRR Writer, Hannah Miller
Pick up your own copy here! (Trigger warning: toxic relationships; abortion; instances of homophobia)